Friday, 23 March 2018

When Political Parties Question Media Neutrality

As the media fraternity in Odisha gets increasingly vocal about protecting freedom of speech and ensuring a free media, a few political parties in the state have decided to stage a confrontation.

While, in the most recent case, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the ruling party of Odisha, has openly declared a boycott of the OTV, alleging that the channel has been carrying news and views intentionally against the interests of the party, nearly a month back part of the media in the state also felt that the Odisha chapter of BJP was planning to boycott another channel, Kalinga TV, for similar reasons. But the BJP didn’t publicly claim a boycott, the way the BJD did on 21 March 2018 through a press conference.

Intolerance for Critical Voices

Being targeted by political parties, the state government, or individuals in power is not a new experience for Odisha’s media. Before this, during the Bijepur assembly by-elections, BJD had lodged a complaint with the State Election Commission against OTV, raising the issue of neutrality and alleging that the channel was broadcasting paid news.
But this is the first time that the ruling party, BJD, has come out openly against a news channel and announced counter-measures.
For a political party to boycott the media or part of it based on accusations that it promotes views against the government and the ruling party is surely an attempt to take the state into an age of limited democracy.
That’s because the primary objective of the media is to play the role of a watchdog and hold those in power accountable by bringing any wrongdoing in any nook or cranny of the state to public attention. The ruling party and its members should have a corrective instead of coercive approach when reacting to news carried by the media.
But political parties governed by their own political interests are in no position to certify media organisations on neutrality or partiality in their views and content.
Instead, they should trust the general public to make up their own minds regarding bias and neutrality of the content published. Failing that, they are also within their rights to approach relevant forums like the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) or the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to express their grievance and seek a fair deal.

The behaviour of BJD towards OTV, which was once the favourite of the party – with BJD leaders even waiting to speak to the media until a representative of the channel arrived – not only reflects its intolerance towards voices that are critical of the government it leads, but also the arrogance of its leaders and disrespect for a free media, which is central for the survival of democracy.

Time for Media to Confess

There is no doubt that a different public opinion about OTV is emerging, based on some particular news that were given too much importance, since Baijayant Panda, the Kendrapara MP and promoter of the channel, blamed V Karthikeyan Pandian, a bureaucrat serving as the private secretary to the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, for all wrongdoings in the party and all the mishaps he had to face in his constituency while in BJD.

But the media shouldn’t sit quiet now after such an unprecedented incident by terming all allegations baseless and shifting the blame to the party.

Pandian is retained in the position he is by none other than the Chief Minister and we can presume that all his acts come with the approval of the Chief Minister.
But neither Panda nor the leaders who followed him in making similar allegations nor the channel has yet questioned the Chief Minister for retaining such a corrupt official if the allegations are to be believed, in his office.
Finally, on biased news, many of the newspapers, TV channels and portals seem to be naturally aligned to particular political parties and ideologies. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. But the media houses need to be upfront to confess to their readers and audience who they are aligned with.
Because when organisations project themselves in the public as neutral or impartial but carry biased news aligned to a particular party or ideology, that’s the biggest fraud by the media to its readers and viewers.

This piece was first published on March 23, 2018, at TheQuint.